Interview: Justice (retd) Majida Razvi
Justice (retd.) Majida Razvi’s appointment as the first woman judge to the Sindh High Court Bench in 1994 broke the glass ceiling that had been firmly held by men for 47 years. But that distinction constitutes only a fraction of Razvi’s achievements.
Along with her distinguished career as a judge and earlier as an advocate, she has been a tireless activist, writing extensively on legal rights and women’s issues. Additionally, in collaboration with the department of Social Welfare, she has worked with women in low-income areas to educate them about their legal rights.
Her legal career spans over 35 years from 1963 to 1999, with the High Courts and later the Supreme Court. In between, for a few years, she also devoted part of her time to rehabilitating refugees who had poured into the Orangi township from former East Pakistan after the 1971 war.
As a Sindh High Court judge from 1994 to 1999, Razvi did not just preside over family court cases but also sat on the criminal benches, unlike her counterparts in Lahore. Because of her impeccable reputation, she was assigned some of the highly sensitive cases of the time, such as the Mehfil-i-Murtaza massacre case (1995) in which members of the Sipah-e-Sahaba killed 18 Shias in the Mehfil-e-Murtaza Imambargah in Ramzan. This was a case that even Razvi’s male counterparts were reluctant to preside over. Another landmark case was that of a young female PIA flight attendant, who had sued the airline for gender discrimination, as the retirement age for women in PIA was set much lower than that for men.
Even after her retirement from the bench in 1999, Razvi continued to fight for gender and human rights. In 2002, she was appointed Chairperson of the National Commission on the Status of Women (NCSW), and her first priority was examining the controversial Hudood laws, which she did in a subsequent report, that resulted in amendments to the Hudood laws.
Razvi has been associated with various national and international organisations that are focused on ending gender discrimination. She was a member of the Commonwealth team that monitored the elections in Tanzania in 2005. She is the recipient of several national and international awards. In 2013, Majid Razvi became the first Chairperson of the Sindh Human Rights Commission that was set up in 2013 – a position she still holds.
What made you choose law as a profession?
Originally, I had planned to do my CSP and enter politics but my family was reluctant because they felt the political environment was not conducive for women. I decided that if I couldn’t get into politics, I would try law. I had always admired Jinnah’s vision and politics and the way he led us to a new nation.
Did you know that because of Jinnah there was a significant amendment made in the Indian criminal law? This was in Bombay and it was one of Jinnah’s most famous cases in which one of his clients was sentenced to hang. He was present when the accused was taken to the gallows. When the noose was put around the young man’s neck and he was about to be hung, Jinnah ordered the prison officials to stop and asked them to release his client immediately. He quoted the law which stated `to be hanged’ – in his view, the sentence had been carried out. The sentence didn’t say `hanged till dead.’ Following this case, the law was changed and the courts never sentenced anyone ‘to be hanged’ but `to be hanged till dead.’
Were there many women studying law when you started out?
There were only about 11 female students, but several of them left and by the time we graduated, there were only five of us who passed the bar exams.
What kind of challenges did you face when you began practicing law?
I faced a small hurdle when I was about to begin my practice. One of my brothers was of the opinion that because of the attitude of the lawyers and the environment in the courts, girls were vulnerable to exploitation. He told my father that I could teach law, do anything else but practice. I resisted and a six-month tug-of-war ensued. I nagged my parents continuously and they all got so fed up that finally we came to an agreement.
I proposed that for a year I would work in a law firm and if I felt uncomfortable I would leave. I joined a firm known to my family in 1963-64 and after three-four months my family realised that there was no going back.
What was the attitude of your male colleagues when you started practicing law?
Whenever I went to the District Courts, the public viewed me as if I was some kind of an ajuba (strange creature). In the High Court however, I didn’t face any problems. But being a young woman, it was harder to convince my clients. I remember when my senior asked me to prepare for my first case and informed the client, the latter scoffed at me while I was sitting next to my senior. Unconvinced that I’d do a proper job, he insisted that it was my senior’s services that he had engaged.
As luck would have it, the day the case was called, my senior was arguing an appeal before another bench. I asked the judge if the case could be kept aside as the client didn’t want me to proceed, although I had prepared the case. The judge was not in the mood to wait for my senior and he gave me exactly 15 minutes to prep and proceed. In a panic, the client went running to find my senior. Naturally I became a bit nervous, but the judge understood the situation perfectly and told me to proceed.
My senior turned up just as I was about to examine my second witness, but the judge told him to be seated and observe. Both, the judge and my senior, were pleased with my performance and the judge gave me two weeks for arguing the case which we won. That was a breakthrough for me.
After that, during my second job in another firm they put me in charge of 250 case files and I conducted all of them. My senior, who was very strict, would even entrust me with his cases. I would be in the court before he arrived. That was the kind of training that served me well all my life.
During that period I started writing for Akhbar-e-Khawateen which had women journalists like Mussarat Zaidi, Naushaba Zuberi, Sheen Farrukh and Anis Haroon on the staff. I used to contribute a weekly article on law and Zaidi would translate it from English into Urdu. I started writing on Muslim law and women’s rights, especially after the passage of the Family Laws Ordinance 1961. I also wrote on other laws that concerned women to educate them on laws relating to rent, property, etc. While writing, I came across Shireen Rehmatullah who was the Director of Social Welfare, and shared my interest in raising legal awareness among the women who came to their community centres in Lyari and in Khadda. So once a week after attending to my cases in the High Court, I would attend the centres and speak to the women who came from assorted ethnic backgrounds about their rights as women and the laws that were in place to safeguard them if they were beaten, deprived of food and ill-treated. The women would be all ears and they would talk about it in their homes.
Soon after, Akhbar-e-Khawateen started receiving numerous letters saying that I was misleading women and even threats to throw acid on me. Akhbar-e-Khawateen knew that I was only discussing the law and not inciting the women, but out of concern for my safety they told me to be more careful.
Your life took a turn in 1971.
During the 1971 war, there was an exodus of refugees, from then East Pakistan to West Pakistan, who had lost everything. They needed to be relocated, re-established and provided all kinds of services, including medical aid. My `chemist’ brother, based in Germany, had a circle of friends including doctors and engineers, who decided to come to Pakistan to do charity work and assist the refugees. When they arrived I helped them set up and register an NGO.
For the first time in my life, I ventured beyond Banaras Colony into the Orangi Town. It was completely uninhabited, almost like a desert, with no roads or services, except for a Red Cross building and a small Marie Adelaide Leprosy Centre. Early morning I would travel in an ambulance van, pick up five or six girls from different areas on the way to the refugee camps. We organised medicines, food, clothes, an industrial home and anything else that was needed. In the evenings, I would return to office to work.
Once in the middle of the night the jhuggis caught fire and I rushed to Orangi to arrange for food and set up tents for the refugees and the very next morning I went to the bar room to collect funds. We earmarked 80-yard plots for the refugees, and gave them material to build houses themselves. In collaboration with the Central Board of Revenue we had constructed 100 houses for the refugees in Landhi also. We prepared separate lists of professionals so that we could help them find jobs, while we set up the others with small shops or thelas.
We even set up a school and selected four teachers from among the refugees to teach their children but there were not enough funds to pay their salaries. Although I was quite junior, I had a very good rapport with senior lawyers in the bar such as Mr Khalid Ishaq, Mr Fakhruddin G. Ebrahim, Mr Naeemuddin, Mr Nasir Aslam Zahid. When I told them about the situation, each of them donated a salary for a teacher which continued for a long time. Nearly everybody in the bar knew of my work with the refugees and offered financial help. They encouraged me to continue my work and kept an eye on my practice.
Every single day I would return home with a layer of dirt coating my face. This was my life for four to five years and this is how the Orangi basti came up.
When did you return to your practice?
This (helping the refugees) continued till 1972, when my mother died. Then, in 1974 my father passed away, and in 1975 my brother, who had already lost his wife, also died leaving behind two daughters. Since my family’s situation changed, so did our financial situation and I had to resume my practice. Fortunately, by then the refugees in Orangi had settled down.
I returned to work with full force, continuing with my own practice as well as that with another firm. My mornings were spent in court and then I would head for office. My seniors began to rely on me and whenever they were getting late would ask me to represent them in court. The judges knew I would be present in court, even before they arrived. That’s the kind of commitment I gave to the profession and how I earned my place and my reputation.
When did you become a judge?
I became a judge in 1994, and mine was a direct appointment to the High Court. I had no pull nor did I believe in using any. I used to assist lawyers like Khalid Anwar, Khalid Ishaq and Yahya Bakhtiar, in preparing their cases. While I was assisting the eminent lawyer Yahya Bakhtiar in one of the most important cases in the Supreme Court, he remarked that I was so good that I deserved to become a judge.
So in 1989, when Benazir Bhutto returned to Pakistan after her first exile, my name was submitted for appointment as a High Court Judge. But before it could be finalised, BB’s government was dismissed. When she returned to power for the second time, she vowed to bring in women judges. My appointment as a High Court judge was delayed, otherwise I would have been the first woman judge in 1989 instead of 1994. I served for five years.
Why aren’t there more women judges? Does it always have to be a direct appointment?
High Court judges come from services in the district courts, but they can be appointed directly from the bar as well. Women judges like Qaisar Iqbal and Yasmeen Abbasi came from the district courts. Unfortunately they were removed, along with the 60 other judges, during General Musharaff’s term. In Quetta, there is Justice Syeda Tahira Safdar of the Balochistan High Court, there is one woman judge in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and there are three in Punjab. There is no woman in the senior judiciary in Sindh.
What is the scope for women to become judges?
Once, in the presence of some of the country’s judges, I said there should be more women judges, and one of them turned around and remarked, “you have become one and that’s enough.”
It is a mindset. When I was still practicing, some senior lawyers in the bar were discussing the appointment of someone as a new judge. I said that I was more qualified than that person, so why didn’t they appoint me instead? A senior macho lawyer, who was very influential, said there was no room for women in the superior judiciary. That really hit me. When I did become a judge, I wished he were alive to see that there was.
There is still no female Supreme Court Justice. Do you seriously think the glass ceiling has been broken?
The glass ceiling may have cracked, but it seems as if they don’t want to lose ground to women and so they don’t want to give her the space.
How was your stint as the Chairperson of the NCSW, following your departure from the bench?
As Chairperson of NCSW, I broke the myth of Hudood laws being Quranic laws. The law was reviewed by a committee of 16 members comprising Supreme Court and High Court retired judges, lawyers, human rights activists, religious scholars and members of the NCSW with a legal background. After deliberating for about a year, the Committee concluded that these laws were not in accordance with the Sharia and should be repealed.
What was the reaction to the report on the Hudood laws?
The Jamaat-e-Islami wielded tremendous influence over Prime Minister Zafarullah Khan Jamali and, as a consequence, my extension in NCSW was stopped. However, as a result of the report on the Hudood laws, there was an amendment in 2004, following which the courts started giving bail in Hudood cases. Then came a second amendment, that defined honour killing. Punishment was introduced in Qisas and Diyat, when there was none previously. All these amendments had been taken from the NCSW Hudood report. Finally in 2006, the Protection of Women (Criminal Laws Amendment) Act was introduced. I left the NCSW in 2005, but I applied a lot of pressure during my tenure, including giving a briefing to the Senate and to people like Dr. Khalid Masood, insisting that the Hudood laws were not Quranic laws – but were, in fact, man-made drafts.
What is your take on the present Council of Islamic Ideology (CII)?
It is mostly full of people who are conservative and anti-women. I’m glad someone has challenged Shirani’s appointment. He cannot wear two hats at the same time – he is a sitting MNA as well as a member of the Council. For a long time, I have felt that the CII should be disbanded as it is also a burden on the taxpayer. We have the courts and scholars, who can always be consulted.
Did the Sindh Human Rights Commission (SHRC) come about because of your efforts?
No, I cannot claim that. It had been lying in cold storage. During the 2013 interim government, Anis Haroon became the Minister for Human Rights for three months. She dug it out, after which the Sindh Human Rights Commission was set up as a government-instituted body – a statutory body under the Act of 2011. Anis Haroon said she wanted me to build it up as I had the NCSW, and submitted my name to head it.
The budget / Grant in Aid for SHRC was 30 million for three years, which the government gave after a year had passed. When the first instalment came, everyone only took one or two months’ salary and the rest of the amount was left in the bank to keep the Commission running. I just received my 10-month salary of 2015 in a lump sum. I haven’t received any for 2016. SHRC’s 2014 report was printed by Pakistan Institute for Labour Education and Research (PILER). Would you believe that we don’t have the money to print our latest report? We have given the draft to the Asia Foundation and they have promised it will come out very soon.
The salaries of a chairperson, honorarium for members and staff salaries are yet to be paid. Where are we supposed to give it from? We have even taken a project from Aurat Foundation. I had asked the then Chief Minister thrice for the budget funds and he always promised but nothing has materilised so far.
Even in the NCSW, I used to virtually have a fight daily over budget funds. But there I managed to extract it out of them. For the NCSW, I was given a single room in the ministry. They gave us a single table and a chair in a building. When I left after three years, it had become a fully furnished commission, with a conference room with mikes, etc. The NCSW comes under the federal government and the SHRC is under the Sindh Government.
What are the powers of the SHRC?
We have a lot of powers including taking suo moto cases on incidents of violence against women that are reported in the newspapers, including the Sindhi press. We pick up news from the channels as well and we also receive applications. We have taken suo moto notices of many cases. Our powers, activities and achievements are uploaded on our website.
What happens when powerful influentials in the government are involved in crimes against women? Can the Commission hold them accountable?
Of course there are such cases and yes, the police refuse to take action until and unless they are ordered by their superiors. For example, an FIR of a gang rape had to be registered in interior Sindh and I was receiving reports that the police were resisting. I had a Court Order issued, ordered protection for the victim and also arranged an ambulance service for her through Faisal Edhi. The police personnel at the station kept denying that there was any such order from their superiors. Then I told them to give it in writing so that we could forward it to the court. But they didn’t want to do that either. Finally at 11:30 at night they were compelled to register the FIR. My persistence paid off.
Many of these policemen have appeared before me in court and they are a bit fearful of me. Several wouldn’t want to come to court because they knew I was presiding. They need to be cut down to size often, especially when they refuse to follow a court order.
We have recently formed a core group along with the police and we are planning to set up a toll-free number which will be managed by this group. The DIG, IG and all those involved have been instructed that if anyone is sent by the SHRC, they have to respond immediately.
I heard your tenure ends in December?
Actually, I completed my three years in May. I had resigned last year in December because they were not giving the necessary funds nor the staff I needed. The law is that unless they accept my resignation, I cannot leave. Chief Minister Qaim Ali Shah said, how can we let you leave? They know that I am a committed person and dedicated to the cause. They said I could take my salary first. How can I, when everyone else is owed their salaries? Now they have given me an extension.
The writer is a documentary filmmaker and activist. She is working with the Newsline as editorial assistant.